This very dark novel set in Charlottesville, North Carolina in 1972 is about the different relationships between a father and each of his sons, and those the sons have with one another. All of these connections are challenged by both the shattering impact of the Vietnam War on the family, and by the depravity they encounter even without the war.
Police detective Bill French and his wife Gabrielle had three sons. Robert died in Vietnam. His twin brother Jason served three tours in Vietnam and came home broken: addicted to drugs and involved with crime that led to a three-year stint in Lanesworth State Prison. Bill and his wife believe that the war in essence killed both of the twins: “Robert with a bullet to the heart, and his brother more insidiously.” Gabrielle in particular has a problem with Jason – she always preferred Robert. When he died, she said she wished it had been Jason. She is repelled by Jason now and terrified he will ruin Gibby (Gibson), who is 18 (five years younger than the twins), and whom Gabrielle considers to be her only remaining son. Bill is upset by what Jason seems to have become, but still loves his son fiercely – a love he has not been able to express, however.
Gibby admires Jason, thinking he is all that Gibby is not. Reflecting the cultural influences around him, Gibby compares himself to Jason, and he comes up short in his own mind:
“Sex. Death. Experience. These were the things that made him a man and me something less.”
As the novel opens, Jason has just been released from prison, and invites Gibby to spend a day with him and with two young women in their late twenties, Tyra and Sara. Tyra is a troubled person who drinks too much and finds Jason’s bad reputation and scars “hot.” Sara, the day’s designated partner for Gibby, is more grounded, but no saint either.
The day goes terribly wrong, and Jason is sent back to prison for murder. A rich, powerful, and psychopathic prisoner in Lanesworth known as “X” set up the crime so Jason would be brought back. We only find out why far into the story.
Gibby is convinced of Jason’s innocence, and outraged that his father doesn’t do more to prove it. He intends to find out himself what happened, but is in way over his head. His best friend Chance decides to help Gibby, and this puts Chance in danger too. Before long all three of the boys are fighting for their lives, and Bill has to make a choice about helping them and how to go about it if he does, because to save one might condemn the others.
Evaluation: Disturbing truths about Vietnam and the human psyche dominate this gritty story, but it is also very much a coming of age book highlighting the bonds of family and friendship. It seemed to me that the horrifying details of the story are not there for sensationalism; rather, they are presented as an outgrowth of sadness, injustice, and/or the tragedy of wretched circumstances.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2020